This Side of Heaven: Exploring a Christian’s Relationship with Social Justice

I originally wrote this piece in the fall of 2018 for To The Well, a Christian thought journal at UNC. A lot has changed since then (including, maybe, even some of my articulations of social justice) but I praise the Lord that his faithfulness, goodness and eternal posture toward justice has not. You can find a shorter version of this essay here. The above image is a screenshot of a partial illustration, designed by Cassandra Berens.

For many people, Christians have become synonymous with enthusiasts of Make America Great Again apparel, big walls, and politically incorrect speech. 

Some Christians resent this conservative stereotype, while others embrace it. Regardless, it is clear that religious identity has become a strong indicator of political identity – a 2018 Gallup poll on evangelicals in America reported that 68 percent of self-described evangelicals supported Trump, compared to only 26 percent of those same respondents that supported Obama. As the world watches, many who proclaim to know Jesus hold these identities proudly, and at times, more so than they do their identities as Christians. Others choose to abstain from politics because of their Christianity. 

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines identity politics as “politics in which groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group.” I am not going to make any arguments regarding the morality of supporting or not supporting Trump, but against idolizing and lifting high political identity above our identity as children of God. As Christians, we cannot fit neatly into any political party or identity, and we shouldn’t expect to. Rather, the purpose of engaging in politics as a Christian is to make a broken world more like the kingdom of heaven, where are humans are equal and dignified.

“Lest we forget, it’s important to be reminded that Jesus’ approaches were not popular during his ministry on earth.”

Throughout the four Gospels, Jesus rebukes the disciples for their expectations of him to be a savior by becoming politically elite, just as he similarly avoids debate with the religious leaders regarding the authority of Rome. So often, these are the types of politics we involve ourselves in – politics not centered on our individual actions, but on those of leaders we either despise or adore, parties we view as the problem or the answer.

Very often, even our best understanding of Jesus’ relationship with politics stops there. Recognizing that our political leaders will not be able to fix or ruin everything is a good first step, but it is not all we are called to as Christians. Jesus didn’t stop at renouncing idolization of political leaders – he also crossed political and social boundaries with nearly all of his actions and teachings. The miracles and words of Jesus we now look to for boldness and encouragement when thinking about love and justice were deeply political. We tend to remember Jesus as apolitical to justify not engaging in messy and uncomfortable political conversations, but in reality he was scandalously intertwined in the political realms we often distance ourselves from while denouncing those with which we engage.

As he built a kingdom in which all humans are equal, Jesus defied the political and social norms of his time by dining with sinners and healing the sick on the Sabbath (Mark 2:15-17; 3:1-6). Too often, Christians stay away from social justice – which really boils down to loving other people – because they do not wish to “get too political,” or defy the conservative expectations others have of them. This behavior is not consistent with the person of Jesus.

Lest we forget, it’s important to be reminded that Jesus’ approaches were not popular during his ministry on earth. He was well known in Galilee and Judea, where most of his ministry took place, and many traveled great distances to encounter him. However, the majority of the followers he amassed during his ministry admired his miracles but did not care much for his teachings or their implications (Jn 4:48). And the religious despised Jesus – he was a radical, socioeconomically poor, Jewish son of a carpenter who undermined their authority and power (Jn. 7:1).

As a rabbi, he defied cultural expectations of cleanliness by dining with sinners. As a Jew, he defied cultural boundaries by speaking to, and teaching positively about Samaritans. As a man, he defied cultural gender norms by teaching, healing, and ministering to women. Jesus’ ministry of elevating the lowly infiltrated politics, and we should expect our pursuit of love and justice to sometimes look political, too. The world may apply labels that attempt to split people evenly into camps with certain positions and identities, but Jesus walks into every camp we create to call his beloved to him – and he calls us to do the same.

Jesus’ selection of disciples tells us this – all who believe Jesus is the son of God are welcomed, embraced, and saved, and no social standing, political stance, or any other human category will ever stand in the way.

Throughout the Gospels we can see Jesus interact with women in ways contrary to societal expectations. He speaks with countless women in public, heals “unclean” women, allows himself to be anointed by a woman, taught women about scripture, invited Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and many other women to accompany him during his ministry, and lovingly called each “Daughter” (Lk 10:39, Mt 12:46-50, Mk 15:41, Lk 8:48). Jesus treated women as valuable and cherished their spiritual maturity and understanding of who he was just as much as he did for his 12 male disciples — evidence that Jesus advocated for the flourishing of all people, regardless of any earthy status they’d been assigned.

Concerning his 12 disciples, Jesus did not pick the type of men who would’ve typically been considered eligible to be religious apprentices at the time – rather, they were fishermen, tax collectors, and Jewish nationalists. Jesus’ selection of disciples tells us this – all who believe Jesus is the son of God are welcomed, embraced, and saved, and no social standing, political stance, or any other human category will ever stand in the way. He traveled to Samaritan and Gentile territories, as well as the homes of despised and cast-out people – all in the name of pointing sinners to God. Jesus was not afraid to get political in order to ultimately bring those marginalized into relationship with him, and we shouldn’t be either. 

Not only did Jesus cross political boundaries to reveal himself to all people, but he also showed grace to both the oppressed and the oppressor. The story of the despised tax-collector Zacchaeus shows that Jesus dined with all sinners, not just the ones shunned by religious leaders and therefore living as outcasts. We cannot fight for justice as Christians without remembering all sinners (including ourselves!) are in need of grace and capable of being redeemed. We cannot fight for the oppressed in the power of the Holy Spirit, and hate the oppressor. This idea is certainly not a popular one in our culture, and goes back to our inability as Christians to fit into societal boxes or categories. Jesus calls us to extend his love and news of his salvation to all people – the victim and the oppressor, the marginalized and the powerful, the protestor and the MAGA-hat wearer. Mark 2:17 says Jesus came not for the righteous, but for the sinners. The good news for us is that we are all, without a doubt, sinners, and therefore each qualified to know Jesus and enter into relationship with him – and we must keep this central to our fight for justice.

The Bible is full of explicit commands to pursue justice, and yet, for many Christians, the phrase “social justice” leaves a bitter taste in their mouths. Often they attempt to rid themselves of this call by adhering to fundamentalist values of authority and tradition. For other Christians, social justice is a crusade in which positive change becomes the focus and fuel, rather than Christ himself. Neither extreme is a biblical, helpful, or obedient response to the call on our lives to pursue justice.

Much of the tension surrounding social justice boils down to Christians prioritizing either justice or peace. But Jesus shows us that when justice is pursued in the power of the Holy Spirit, the two are inseparable. When Jesus intervenes to save the life of the woman accused of adultery and points out the hypocrisy of those present, he also tells the woman to “go and sin no more” (John 8). When Jesus healed the chronically crippled woman, he affirmed her faith and then used the miracle to challenge the legalism of the religious leaders, using the Sabbath as an excuse to not do the work of God (Luke 13). Just as we cannot ignore our call to fight for justice, we also cannot fight for justice without consistently rooting our work in Jesus Christ. In many spaces where social justice takes place, this position is an uncomfortable one to take, but it is a necessary one if we wish to truly love others as Jesus commands us. God created us as both physical and spiritual people, and so we must address a person’s physical and spiritual needs.

We cannot fight for the oppressed in the power of the Holy Spirit, and hate the oppressor.

In Matthew 25, Jesus says those who feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned will be blessed, as their actions to the least of these is ultimately done for him. He warns that we will be judged for the times we do not serve others. This is a tall order. In a world that constantly reminds us of its – and our – brokenness, finding a foothold for justice can seem impossible. This is why our identity as Christians is crucial to our fight for justice. We must approach each of these good works in the power of the Spirit, not in our own self-righteousness or out of our own desires. As we step out boldly, we must also be willing to approach what intimidates us prayerfully, asking the Lord to replace our natural responses with those that please him. Along the way, we must continually examine our hearts for the people we are unified with in Christ – whether we are unified politically or not – that we might fight for justice and love with God-glorifying purposes. Jesus didn’t fight for the good of political parties, he fought for the good of people. So too should we, regardless if that fits into America’s two-party mold. 

We live in a word that longs, groans even, for justice. Christians must live in the tension between fighting for justice now, while also realizing true justice will only be accomplished when Jesus Christ returns to make the earth new and perfect, just as he has promised. But that tension does not excuse us of the responsibility to fight for equality and justice now. We have been given much that we might ultimately honor each other as people made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) and point them to Christ. And, as Christians struggle for justice, they must be informed first and foremost by Christ’s life and teaching, not our political parties. Most importantly, we should never stop praising God for allowing us to be used in his plan toward ultimate justice, or forget the glorious hope we have in Christ when the brokenness of this world feels like too much.